LITTLE ROCK — Art and music instructors in Arkansas say they are worried about the long-term consequences for students of a new law that makes those courses optional in middle school.
They argue that students will not receive as well-rounded an education, and that some school districts might opt to drop art or music to cut costs.
"At the elementary level we plant the seeds and spend years nurturing and cultivating those loves, those beliefs, those practices," said Sharon Boyd-Struthers, an art teacher at Rockefeller Elementary and Early Childhood Magnet School in Little Rock. "And then to give them a choice of one or the other at middle school absolutely takes away the possibility at the high school level."
Paige Rose, president of the Arkansas Music Association, said there is also the fear that some school districts, struggling to make ends meet, might eliminate art or music altogether in 7th and 8th grade.
"I think it’s just a matter of administrators are going to see it’s a loophole there, a way to save money possibly … funnel other funds elsewhere if they can cut something," said Rose, an assistant professor of music education at the University of Central Arkansas.
"When they voted this through they probably didn’t realize that language would do that," she said.
Phyllis Stewart, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education, said last week she wasn’t aware of any school administrators considering the elimination of either art or music to save costs.
"I would hope it would be based upon student interest, but the law doesn’t require (school districts) to offer both," she said. "It says visual arts or performing arts."
Act 599 of 2013 gives 7th and 8th graders the option of taking either music or art, eliminating the long-standing requirement that they take one semester of each.
The legislation that became Act 599 was sponsored by Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood. Nickels did not return a call seeking comment Friday, but in presenting his bill on the House floor in March, he said he meant to give students a choice. He noted that because school regulations required 7th and 8th graders to take both a semester of art and a semester of music, students wanting to take band and choir were unable to do so.
"So what we’re trying to do is make it available for both 7th and 9th graders to have that choice," he said. "These classes are already there. This just gives the opportunity to the student, so I don’t think it would be considered a mandate."
Rose said the Legislature’s "intentions were good," but she said the law also opens the door for potential problems in the future.
"They wanted to allow students that are older in the intermediate grades a chance to explore the arts, whether it be music or visual arts, if they are starting to really identify with one of them," she said. "So, if art and music both have to happen you get a lot of kids, for instance, that are in band and will have to drop band for a semester to take visual arts for a semester. Of course, that’s a big interruption in the sequence of teaching, so that’s a problem."
But the downside that needs to be addressed, she said, "is the negative implication that someone could easily say, ‘well you only have to offer art or music, so we’ll just cut a program,’" adding that she recently received a call from a concerned parent who said the middle school’s administrator was considering just that.
Rose declined to name the school to which the parent referred.
She and Boyd-Struthers both said that, originally, the bill would have allowed students in elementary school and middle school the choice, but that the bill was later amended to remove grades 1-6.
She said a coalition of instructors of fine arts from kindergarten through college is working to address questions raised about the possible negative consequences of Act 599. The Arkansas Arts Educators Consortium includes art, theater and music educators.
The ideal change, Page said, would be for both art and music to be mandated, but still allow students a choice.
"We really are in support of the intentions" of the law, she said. "We just want to try and protect those teachers and students that might be adversely affected by it if it is interpreted the wrong way."
E.C. Walker, interim director of the Arkansas Education Association, said he did not know what kind of long-term impact the new law would have but that the AEA would prefer the Legislature "not go all the way down to mandating the curriculum and instruction like that."
"That really is better served by letting the state board do that through regulations," Walker said.
Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said his association has received inquiries from school administrators about offering just music or art.
"Our response is ‘no,’" Abernathy said. "You have to teach … both courses. I don’t think that’s even an option."
Stewart said she wasn’t aware if any administrators had asked the state Department of Education about whether they can offer only music or art under Act 599.
"I’m not sure what the department would say," she said. "I think they would say, ‘well, you follow the law.’"